Serpent's Tail, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - book review: 'Convoluted family affair doesn't quite hit home'
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent and elsewhere. His novel Randall, about the contemporary art world and the fate of the YBAs, is published by Galley Beggar Press. He blogs on this aspect of his writing at tinycamels.wordpress.com
Tuesday 25 March 2014
Karen Joy Fowler's novel is built in such a way as to make it peculiarly difficult to write about. Anyone who has read it might forgive me for simply reporting that it is an intricate and humane story about families, and the damage that good intentions can do, and leaving it at that.
The family at its centre is that of the Cookes, Mom and Dad and their three children – in order of age: Lowell, Fern and Rosie. They grow up in 1970s Indiana, where Dad Vince is a psychology professor – of the type that "didn't leave their work at the office. They brought it home. They conducted experiments around the breakfast table, made freak shows of their own families, and all to answer questions nice people wouldn't even think to ask."
We do learn, in time, exactly what experiments the parents perpetrated on their children, but only through the retrospective filter of regret, guilt and accusation: 20 years on, Rosie is the only one of the three children in contact with the grown-ups, and it's she who tells the story.
In 1996 she is going through a bad patch at college when Lowell suddenly turns up on her doorstep, with news of the long-disappeared Fern. Things are further complicated by the interventions of Rosie's unlikely friend, Harlow, who is the sort of anarchic devil-may-care "psycho bitch" who would hog the limelight in almost any novel but this.
Here, despite the wilful destruction, and the drugs, and the stolen ventriloquist's dummy, she is outshone by the Cookes themselves. "You know how everything seems so normal when you're growing up," Rosie remembers her freshman roommate saying, on their first day of college, "and then comes this moment when you realize your whole family is nuts?" – little does she know!
All this complication, though, which takes in jail, helicoptered-in civil rights lawyers and gung-ho janitors, does lessen the impact of the novel. It's true that Rosie is a terribly conflicted narrator, and by the end of the book we understand her reasons for making such a convoluted hash of what is at heart a simple story, but that doesn't stop the annoyance she generates along the way.
It's Fowler, not Rosie, that chose the structure of the book, and she might just as easily have taken a dozen more straightforward routes that would have made the same heartfelt points about human nature and the duties we have to each other – and the impossibility of ever achieving this, thanks to what Rosie memorably calls "the clown car between our ears".
TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp
Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s
'At times I thought he was me'film
Review: One Direction, Fourmusic
Review: The World of Ice and Firebooks
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp
- 2 Black Friday 2014: Opening times for Asda, John Lewis, PC World, GAME and Argos
- 3 To help fuel their propaganda machine against the poor, our government has now decided to redefine the word 'welfare'
- 4 Girl, 7, gets Tesco to remove 'stupid' sign suggesting superheroes are 'for boys'
- 5 Jeremy Hunt: 'I took my children to A&E because I didn't want to wait for GP appointment'
Jurassic World trailer: Chris Pratt stars in full-length trailer with Bryce Dallas and Ty Simpkins
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp
Zoella: YouTube sensation Zoe Sugg's debut novel set to become bestseller
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs
Naked free runner captured in breathtaking photographs above London's streets
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
Ukip says babies born to immigrants in the UK should be classed as migrants – which would include Nigel Farage’s own children
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police